Politicians shouldn’t tell us what to teach

Quite a debate is currently raging over whether Michael Gove’s announcements on exams and accountability measures represent a humiliating climb down or a cunning ploy to get 90% of what he wanted while seeming to give ground.

Against this background, the new National Curriculum proposals have perhaps received less attention than they otherwise might. It is of course true that many schools are not required to pay any attention to what the National Curriculum says. However, we should not under-estimate how much Gove is committed to his curriculum. He will assuredly use all the levers provided by testing and inspection to make sure that all schools do indeed follow it.

This curriculum represents the most blatant attempt yet by a politician to impose a particular ideology on children in defiance of the vast bulk of professional opinion. Moreover that ideology is profoundly reactionary and shows almost no understanding of the world that our children will be living in.

The curriculum is dominated throughout by traditional knowledge and traditional ways of accessing and transmitting that knowledge. So, two new aims are identified for the curriculum, in addition to those set out in 1988. They are to:

  • provide pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens.
  • introduce pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and help engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

The latter is virtually a quote from Mathew Arnold in 1869. However Arnold went on to say that students should:

“through this knowledge, turn a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically”

“Fresh and free thinking” are not to be encouraged in Mr Gove’s world! Heaven forbid that our “stock notions and habits” should be challenged.

The professional criticism of this new curriculum has been savage:

“At primary level this looks like leading to an unhelpful, exclusive overemphasis on systematic synthetic phonics in the teaching of early reading and an obsession with grammatical forms and terminology in the teaching of writing. At secondary level it suggests a narrow curriculum with a heavy emphasis on literature from the canon. Most important is the woeful undervaluing of oracy in the curriculum – good speaking and listening work should be at the heart of English given the links between language development and the development of thought and all forms of literacy. It seems the English curriculum will essentially be devoid of important areas like drama, media, multimodal texts and creativity.” (NATE)

“We do not support a ‘curriculum of compliance’. A curriculum that narrowly focuses on a set of given facts and expects children to passively absorb them is not what we want.“  (Geographical Association).

The content is heavily prescriptive and shows little evidence that any meaningful thought has gone into selection; indeed some decisions seem quite arbitrary and even bizarre. Attempting to teach such a content heavy curriculum will lead to little more than a superficial recollection of names and dates. The content of the draft Programmes of Study are far too narrow in their focus on British political history. References to women and diverse ethnic groups are clearly tokenistic. Nods to social, economic and cultural history are rare. The authors of this curriculum have completely failed to understand what progression in history might mean or how a good grasp of chronology can be developed. More than twenty years of thoughtful and sophisticated approaches to curriculum development have been thrown away in this document. (Historical Association).

This curriculum will do nothing to develop in pupils the kinds of skills and qualities that even organisations like the CBI are crying out for. Gove has accused his critics of a “Downton Abbey” approach – deliberately denying to young people the knowledge that they need.

The reality is that his concept of knowledge is stuck firmly in the past. A curriculum that thinks British history is all we need to know, that recognises no communications media except the printed word and that can reduce oracy to formal speeches and debates is profoundly unfit for purpose. He, surely, is the one who is denying to young people an education fit for their future.

The case is now surely made for removing from politicians the power to determine the school curriculum. But we also need to understand that what we are now seeing is something of a different order to what has gone before. Previous curricula have been based on wide consultation and have sought to develop a professional consensus. This one flies quite deliberately in the face of professional opinion and seeks to impose the half-baked ideas of passing politicians on all our children. They should not have the power to do that.






3 Comments on “Politicians shouldn’t tell us what to teach”

  1. Well said. But needs wide readership. Now if you could get it into the Daily Telegraph with 700.000 readers of whom, according to Ipsos Mori, 90% ‘trust their newspaper to tell the truth’, there would be some progress towards degoving government.

  2. David Pavett says:

    It is a strange form of educational politics in which the Minister of State pushes for a National Curriculum which his preferred schools are not obliged to follow.

    I agree that the draft curriculum is profoundly reactionary although I am not so sure that “traditional knowledge” and “traditional ways of accessing and transmitting knowledge” should automatically be regarded as a bad thing. What is “traditional knowledge”? Surely in one aspect it is the knowledge which has been developed and accumulated down the generations and which survival requires be passed on to subsequent generations. Giving the word “tradition” a purely pejorative sense was one of the not so happy features of much of progressive education talk of the last quarter of the last century.

    The problem is not the idea that there is a body of knowledge and know-how into which the rising generation needs to be initiated. Rather the problem is that (1) it is not appropriate that the Minsister of State uses his authority to define the content of the curriculum and (2) the way it has been done converts knowledge into a check-list of items which are regarded as “covered” when forms of behaviour are elicited to demonstrate “competence” regarded each item. This approach makes the learner into a passive recipient and denies the creative roles of both the teachers and the learners.

    I have no problem with raising the profile of grammatical knowledge but only with the way in which this is done. A major barrier for English people to learn foreign languages is their lack of understanding of the rules of their own language. We have reached something of a low point in this regard so I think that I would not want to be totally dismissive of any suggestion that we change direction on that question.

    I certainly agree that little thought has gone into the selection of items for inclusion and that some are arbitrary and bizarre. Why, for example, should be be thought sufficiently important that there was a need to include learning how to count backwards from 100?

    I am not clear that the problem is that Gove’s concept of knowledge is “stuck firmly in the past”. Plenty of educators and thinkers of the past have understood perfectly well the active role of the learner in acquiring new knowledge. Gove’s problem is not that he is stuck in the past but rather that he makes a narrow selection from the past based on his dogmatic view of the world. There is lots in the traditions of education and in past ideas that any progressive educationalist should value.

    I entirely agree that the case is now made for removing from politicians the power to determine the school curriculum. It’s an old argument. In 1875 the German Social Democrats put into their programme the demand “Universal and equal elementary education by the state”. Karl Marx reacted argued that this was “altogether objectionable”. He continued

    “Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, supervising the fulfilment of these legal specifications by state inspectors, is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people! Government and Church should rather equally be excluded from any influence on the school.”

  3. trevor fisher says:

    I agree the politicians should be removed from the curriculum and also exams. However with the central contradiction that David identifies that the national curriculum applies to fewer schools as the preferred option is the near anarcho syndicalist academy-free school system, I think we have to see a new era dawning.

    The old National Curriculum is really the era of Baker and Blair. For reasons that are still not entirely clear, Blair bought into the Adonis vision of a school system free of national structures, and triggered academies. As far as I can see however he imposed the jAMIE Oliver diet systems on academies, but Gove removed them.

    WHich suggest Gove really is in favour of anarcho syndicalism at the school level, aka the independent model in the state sector. So national curriculum does not fit. However Gibb and other tories still like it as a control mechanism, so on we go.

    It is worth looking at the Boris prescription for London, which seems to be old style imposition of old style curricula. If Gove fell out tomorrow I think this is what we would get, though I don’t see any realisation that Boris and Gibb really understand that Free Schools, which are the anarcho syndicalist model per se, are not compatible with a state curriculum. Gove I think does grasp the contradiction, being smarter than the others, and believes the matrix route is the solution.

    Given the priority Gove has given to the matrix system and his troubles with the exam reforms, I think he has a way round this. Academy schools but controlled by exams. So the key to his thinking is the accountability system and his exam reform programme Ebacc and Abacc. This is consistent.

    However Gove has to appease factions within the Tory party. It is very hard to understand the consultation document on accountability and I am still working on it, but one rationale is to allow totally academic schools, some schools with a modest (but not compulsory) arts aspect, and some with a vocational strand. I can’t see Eton doing vocational, but they might do arts GCSEs. I still don’t see how UTCS FIT, and I wait advise from my local UTC.

    The one thing that is absolutely clear is that EBacc is IN big style, despite folk stating it was dropped. EBCs dropped – though not mentioned, so not abandoned – but 5 EBacc subjects are compulsory for all schools.

    Beyond that, the document needs decoding. ANy cryptographers out there?

    Trevor FIsher